I don’t often read Brian Hibbs’s Tilting at Windmills column, even though it’s usually very informative, but his latest one takes stock of the retailing landscape and, as usual, predicts dire things. Hibbs has been tilting at this particular windmill for years, but while he writes things that seem very accurate and he always seeks out other opinions, how often can someone cry wolf about the state of the industry before we start ignoring him? If Hibbs has predicting the collapse of the direct market for over a decade and the direct market steadfastly refuses to collapse, do we really have to listen to him?
Well, sure. I mean, he has to be right one of these days! But even without joking, Hibbs’s columns are worth reading because they give a general sense of how retailers are faring in today’s comics market, and why they might have some complaints. Hibbs always points out that comics as an art form are doing fairly well, it’s just that the direct market’s over-reliance on Marvel and DC and, especially, the event comics from Marvel and DC, might not be healthy. He points out that in January, there are slightly over 1100 solicited periodical comic books. Almost 700 of those are variant covers. There are SEVENTEEN VARIANT COVERS for War of the Realms #1. That’s insane. Sorry, I don’t think I made my point well enough. THAT’S GODDAMNED MOTHERFUCKING SMEAR-SHIT-ON-THE-WALLS INSANE. Somebody – Quesada, perhaps, or someone else in charge – should be lined up against a wall and shot for making that decision. It’s a five-dollar comic, too, so there’s that.
Hibbs goes on to quote several well-known retailers who are suffering through anxiety right now, although curiously he doesn’t quote my retailer, who never seems to suffer any anxiety (he doesn’t like the stupid way he has to get comics from Diamond, but he does fine in the market, it seems). He points out that Marvel and DC don’t really have much incentive to change their crossover-and-variant-cover-and-#1-relaunch madness, and their parent companies often wonder why they’re even in the comics business. He offers up the usual things, like Marvel and DC squeezing their shrinking customer base so their profits look healthy but aren’t really, and while he doesn’t offer very good solutions, he feints that way a little bit. He implies what I’m about to state outright, so here it is:
This is all your fault.
Yes, you. You and me, I suppose, but I’m far less at fault than a lot of people. In fact, given what I know about some of the people here, we’re all probably less at fault than a lot of people. But it’s still our fault. I’ve written this before, but it’s still true: the only way to change the industry so it doesn’t suck is to make it so the companies have no choice but to change. If they can still make money using an antiquated system, they’re going to use an antiquated system. Such is the way of humans. Such is the way of big corporations. Forward-thinking humans and forward-thinking corporations are few and far between. DC and Marvel have absolutely no reason to change what they’re doing, and retailers won’t change anything. Despite the fact that Diamond has a monopoly and retailers are their true customers, ultimately it’s the readers who decide what gets published. If the retailers change their buying habits from Diamond because of what the readers tell them, then Marvel and DC will change their publishing habits based on what Diamond tells them. It’s just that simple.
You know what I’m talking about. Don’t settle. Stop whining about what is coming out and start buying what you like. Stop living in the past, maaaaaan! We all love Spider-Man and Batman and Superman and Dazzler (you know it’s true!), but that doesn’t mean we have to buy the comics starring those characters. I haven’t regularly bought a Spider-Man comic since J. Michael Straczynski’s run, and even then I dropped it before I could find out that Gwen Stacy banged Norman Osborn (which, still, ew). I have bought Batman comics haphazardly over the past twenty years, usually based on who was working on them. Chuck Austen drove me from my beloved X-Men comics in 2004 or so, after the weird-ass Nineties X-Men couldn’t (seriously, the Nineties X-Men weren’t terrible, just weird). I still buy DC and Marvel books occasionally, but I never buy every variant cover and I never stick to something that sucks just because my favorite character from childhood is starring in it. I know people who still do those things – they buy far more variant covers than they should, and they always buy Captain America or Iron Man or Wonder Woman even if the comics, you know, suck. They just love the character so much!!!!!! But, as I’ve noted before, Marvel and DC are counting on that. Why should they try to make better products when we keep buying the shitty ones?
I’m not saying anything all that revolutionary, I know. For most of the readers here, I’m probably preaching to the choir or preaching to no choir, because you don’t buy comics anymore (shame on you!!!!). I’m just saying that there are always options for stories “like the ones they had when you were a kid.” Just because the character might not be the same doesn’t mean you can’t get the same kind of story that makes you happy. Even from Marvel and DC, you can find comics that tweak your nostalgia while still telling a good story. If you can get past the horrible ideological brainwashing, Ms. Marvel is as charming a teenager story as the early Spider-Man comics were (it’s not drawn by Ditko and Romita, so it’s not as good, but it’s also not written in such a goofy rah-rah fashion, so there’s that). Squirrel Girl is one of the funniest comics Marvel has ever – that’s right, EVER – published. DC is doing all sorts of weird stuff with their Hanna-Barbera characters, and Mister Miracle was brilliant. The new Wonder Twins comic has a hilarious first issue, in which we learn of Bruce Wayne’s secret high school shame (and nickname!). Meanwhile, of course, there are dozens of independent comics that have that same sense of chaos that both Marvel and DC used to have before they became far too valuable as IPs for their parent corporations. Plus, if you buy those you won’t be feeding the twin beasts.
I know this isn’t news. Most people understand this. It does need to be pointed out occasionally, though, just like commentators on the state of the industry need to write a “sky-is-falling” post every few years. There are plenty of great comics out there, with writers giving us weird and cool takes on traditional tropes and artists doing mind-bending work. Some of it doesn’t even show up in Diamond, because the internet means creators can take their work directly to the people (that’s you). You have to be a bit more diligent, of course, and not simply buy the same book you’ve bought for years like some mindless zombie, but it can be done. And if the consumers do it, then maybe – just maybe – Marvel and DC will respond to the marketplace. We already know they respond to the public – the idiotic Bat-penis mess shows that, as does the fact that DC cancelled their Jesus comic after people who will never, ever read said Jesus comic or even see it on the shelves complained about it – so if the people who don’t read comics can have an impact, so can those who, you know, actually do read comics. It’s frustrating that so many people in the world will mindlessly follow something they once loved (I’m not just talking about comics, but anything pop-culture-related, and yes, I include myself in that too), because it’s so easy to consume pop culture that you might actually love rather than consume pop culture that you once loved but now don’t. It’s okay to move on! And if you do, just maybe DC and Marvel will produce comics that are worthy of your attention. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Don’t be part of the problem, everyone! No one wants that!